Get To Know Phoebe Baker and Lou James of Six-Piece Australian Band Alpine
In looking at the music videos for Australia-based band Alpine, one gets the impression that frontwomen Phoebe Baker and Lou James would be a blast to hang out with. Yesterday, LAist confirmed that fact during an interview with the pair. We got the scoop on the band's debut album, A Is for Alpine, which was just released in the United States.
Baker and James initially bonded during high school after discovering a shared love for '60s music and British comedy, but it wasn't until guitarist Christian O'Brien started writing with Baker that the band—originally known as Swiss—started to form, and they were soon joined by Ryan Lamb on bass, Tim Royall on keyboard and Phil Tucker on drums.
The Guardian called them "hands down the best Aussie band we've heard all year," and their album, which was released last year in Australia, was named the country's iTunes alternative album of the year. Tonight they'll be opening for Crystal Fighters at the El Rey. Read on to learn more about their energetic live show, mysterious lyrics and the dark side of glitter.
LAist: People love your live shows. Did the album translate well to what you do on stage?
Lou James: Yeah, totally. Since this was our first album and we knew we were going to be touring a lot, we really wanted to make sure we could perform the album live. We have a very energetic live show—we jump around a lot—but we also focus on the harmonies and other elements.
People will come up to us and say, "You sound just like the record!" That's what you want to hear, because you don't want them to be disappointed. And some people think it's even better than the record. You can sit and listen to an album anytime, and that's great, but when you go see a show, you want it to come alive. If it doesn't come alive, there's no point.
Do you ever have any mishaps with all the bouncing around?
Phoebe Baker: Oh yeah, totally.
James: We used to have heaps of glitter, and at this venue in Melbourne where we had our first residency, we got in so much trouble because the glitter ended up getting stuck in the foldbacks [stage monitors].
Oh no! Well, at least the foldbacks looked fabulous in the end…
James: When they opened it, they would've had this magical surprise.
Baker: The power of glitter.
James: We never did that again!
"Gasoline" - Alpine
Lou, getting back to the early days of the band in 2009, how did you come to join the group after Phoebe and Christian started writing music together?
James: Phoebe and Christian had done a couple demos, and Phoebe had written some things with harmonies, so that was the chance for me to get involved. At that stage, it wasn't like we were setting out to become a band; it was just something fun to do. I had been blown away from Phoebe's earlier performances at school, so I knew how good she was.
Baker: When Lou joined, we found that writing together was an awesome, easy, collaborative thing.
James: I might dismiss one of my own ideas and think, "Oh, it's rubbish," but then Phoebe and Christian would say, "No, that's amazing!" Or you might think something's too weird, but then you listen to it again or find it stuck in your head and realize you actually have something there.
Your two voices mesh so well, and it feels like the guitar is a third voice interlacing with yours. Is that how you see it?
Baker: Christian writes the guitar part in almost all of the songs, and he's just a genius. I don't really understand how he does it, but I guess it is kind of like a third vocal in a way.
James: You'll find that most of the songs start with the guitar, and I think that's kind of becoming an Alpine signature.
And you have some great percussive elements, too.
James: We're really into grooves and I think it comes from a lot of jazz and hip-hop that the six of us are quite into.
Baker: The boys especially are very nerdy when it comes to perfecting the sounds. Phoebe and I are not as good in terms of the technical stuff and music theories, but I think we've got good ears. And I love to improvise.
Did you write the album's first songs—"Lovers 1" and "Lovers 2"—at the same time?
Baker: No, we wrote "Lovers 1," which was just called "Lovers," and then one day…
James: …we were sitting down at Phoebe's house and Christian showed us this new idea and I said, "Oh that would be really cool just continuing on from 'Lovers.'" He played it and agreed. It wasn't like a standard pop song, and it was quite unusual—more of a soundscape.
Baker: Those two songs warm you into the album. I like to think of them as a well-thought-out gift.
You've talked about how you address things like panic attacks and fear through your music. What's one thing you think is good to remember when having a panic attack?
Baker: I think an important thing to keep in mind is that you're not the only one. You're not alone.
Do a lot of people pick up on those themes in your songs?
James: I think when it comes to lyrics like ours, when you listen on the surface, it's just like a fun pop song. It isn't until you read the lyrics, or listen a few times—perhaps to something like "The Vigour," which deals with fear—that the meaning comes through a bit more.
"Too Safe" [with lyrics like "I feel too safe with you"] is such a different take on a pre-breakup song.
Baker: Yeah, that one is lyrically fun. When it comes to poetry or lyrics, it has to interest me; it has to surprise me.
Would you share one or two lyricists you really admire?
James: I got a book ages ago by Patti Smith. I think there's a lot of strength in her writing. Kate Bush as well.
Baker: Probably Devendra Banhart.
Which song from your new album is the most fun to sing live?
Baker: It depends on the night but "Gasoline" is pretty much always fun.
James: I like "Hands," because I feel like I get a lot of aggression and grunt out. Anything that's pissed me off during the day, I just let it out and suddenly I feel a lot better. That song is just really cheeky.
In "Hands," the line about the "four words" is so mysterious. Would you mind shedding a little more light on that?
James: To be honest, I don't even know what those four words are. Perhaps it's the four words you should have said, or that, post-breakup, you want to say now. I like how you don't know what they are. Performing it is really empowering.
It's interesting how, in songs like "In the Wild," you use piano in a place where others might normally go with something electronic.
James: That was actually our producer's idea and it gave the song this feeling of breaking free, which was exactly what it needed.
Baker: It's nice to have those really organic sounds amidst all the electronic.
Given your current [Alpine] and original band name [Swiss], have you ever been to Switzerland?
James: I spent a few days there in 2005, and it was the most breathtaking surreal place. The green is a green you can't describe.
Might you ever play there?
Baker: I hope so! I'd love to play in any alpine region—like up on a mountain. How amazing would that be?
Speaking of things that are green, the sports-inspired images on your album cover seem to relate to your songs. How did you come up with that concept?
Baker: It's a made-up playing field, and Tim, our keyboardist, did the art.
James: He does all our artwork. It's so eye-catching. Initially it was all one green color and then he said, "What if it had different tones?" That just brought it to life a bit more. Plus I felt that leaving the last one blank gave it some space.
It's great that the album has finally been released in America. Since its release in Australia, you've toured with many talented bands. What's one thing you've learned from watching them?
Baker: Having a good work ethic for sure.
James: You have to treat it like a job—be on time, do your sound check, be organized. That leads to more harmony when you're touring with other bands. And it's a lot of fun. You're spending a couple of weeks with these people you've never met and suddenly you get to know them and it becomes this really beautiful experience
With all the attention you're getting, do you still have your day jobs in Melbourne?
James: Yes, and everyone's surprised by that.
Lou, what's the name of the tea shop where you work, and what's your favorite tea?
James: The shop is called T2 and it's only in Australia. My favorite tea is this one called Melbourne Breakfast, which is black tea with vanilla, and I have it with milk and honey. It's my scrumptious treat. I used to drink a lot of coffee, but since I've started working there, I don't drink as much. I'm so much more relaxed and I swear by the antioxidants.
And Phoebe, given that you work in a swimwear store, what's your advice for people who are shopping for a swimsuit?
Baker: Some women don't think they look good, but they should just embrace how they look. You're on the beach, so wear what you want to wear! Have fun and go crazy. I'd never had a bikini in my life—I always had one-pieces—so I bought my first bikini. I'm curvy and proud!
Where do you get the clothes you wear on tour?
Baker: My mum makes a lot of our jumpsuits. We design them with her.
Getting back to your music, you've said that you have a pretty huge following in Mexico. Might a Spanish song be on the horizon?
Baker: I would love to. Why not!
James: When we went to San Diego, we actually had five people say to us, "We came from Mexico just to see you."
When the band first started, in looking at our Facebook statistics, we had a bigger following in Mexico and South America than we did in Australia! So yeah, it's amazing to know that our music is reaching so far across water. It's so crazy to think that someone in another country is listening to something we made!
Although you're busy touring around the country, are you already working on your next album?
Baker: Yeah, we're always writing and definitely getting some solid skeletons of songs together, which is really exciting.
Catch Alpine opening for Crystal Fighters tonight at the El Rey. Their first full-length album, A Is for Alpine, is out now.